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2021 Birding in Costa Rica: Racing Past 700 Species

Today is December 31st, tomorrow is a brand new year. On the birding side of life, if you keep a year list, tonight is your final chance for new year birds. If you need owls and nightjars for 2021, you could make one final run, see if you can spotlight one last bird or two. If not, then you might as well celebrate one more trip around the sun, one more year of birding. I suggest a libation of your choice, high quality chocolate, and some excellent cheese (not necessarily in order and you can of course switch up those options for your preferred nibbling delights).

As the sun sets, I could still look for a few more birds. I know at least two species are within striking distance, maybe even 3 more species for 2021. But I’m not doing it. Having already set my year goals, unless I hear the call of a Barn Owl before midnight or catch an auditory wiff of a Tropical Screech-Owl at the last minute, those two won’t make it onto my year list. I’m totally fine with that because my birding strategies for a final push in December paid off; I am ending 2021 with 704 species for Costa Rica.

This Crested Owl tried to hide behind a fern but we still saw it! I heard more than a few of this choice bird in 2021.

Surpassing 700 species in a year of birding in Costa Rica isn’t easy, especially if you have other things you need to do, but if you know where to see birds in Costa Rica, have a good birding app for Costa Rica, and faithfully execute your birding plans, the goal is feasible. According to eBird, several other birders identified more than my 704 species! I guess I’m not surprised because I did miss several birds that I typically hear or see, often on more than one occasion over the coure of 12 months.

The fact that several birders saw or heard more than 700 species in a year shows how many birds are waiting in this incredible, birdy country. They also show the extent to which local birding knowledge has improved. EBird plays a big role but as with any place, the biggest thanks goes to local birders who spend the time in the field needed to broaden our understanding of bird distribution.

In November, thanks to the efforts of various local birders and folks whom I guided, my year list was close enough to 700 try and reach that goal in December. These are some of the places I visited to make that happen:

Cano Negro

The distinct birding aspects of Cano Negro paid off with 10 new year birds. These were species nearly impossible or tough to see elsewhere like Spot-breasted Wren, Nicaraguan Grackle, Yellow-bellied Tyarnnulet, Bare-crowned Antbird, and various others. I still missed some birds that I usually see in that rich mosaic of wetlands and rainforest but participating in the annual bird count still gave me a much needed push to reach 700.

A Few More Birds in Sarapiqui

There weren’t too many new birds waiting for me in the Caribbean lowlands but I still managed to add three year birds. These were a sweet Rufescent Tiger-Heron, a surprise Keel-billed Motmot, and overdue Hook-billed Kite.

Exploring the Poas Area

I end the year lacking a few key cloud forest birds but exploring the Poas area for future birding prospects was still worth it. My main reward was finding a rare for Costa Rica Black-and-White Becard. Seeing it while hearing the songs of a distant quetzal gives me hope that the same spot also harbors additional choice species.

Chasing Geese in Guanacaste

I ended up going to northern Costa Rica twice and I’m glad I did! I saw the mega Greater White-fronted Geese that edged up the official Costa Rica list by one more bird, the cooperative mega Lark Sparrow, and seven other year birds, These included a Spotted Rail giving its low pitched “drumming” calls, Soras flushing in a rice field as it was being harvested, strolling Limpkins that filled the marsh air with their odd vocalizations, their Snail Kite counterparts, and a bird I rarely get to see, Fulvous Whistling-Duck.

Southern Costa Rica

Most of all, a final trip to southern Costa Rica by way of Cerro de la Muerte gave me the birds needed to meet my goal. We took the mountain route so we could successfully stop for Grass Wren near Cartago, make a brief look for Silvery-throated Jays on the Providencia Road, stop in Bosque Tolomuco to pick up a hummingbird or two, and then check for Rosy Thrush-Tanager in the General Valley.

To make a story of a long day short, we saw the wren in all its pallid unobtrusive glory right away, saw quetzals and other birds but not the jay (and also met world birding couple Ross and Melissa Gallardy), spotted White-tailed Emerald at birdy, friendly Tolomuco, and had no sign of the thrush-tanager at one of its main sites (that’s not really a surprise).

Red-headed Barbet overlords tanagers at Tolomuco.

It was only two new birds in the mountains but when the year list comes down to the wire, every bird counts! Even so, it was more in the southern lowlands where most of my birding chances waited. It was in the rainforests and edge habitats where some common, expected species waited along with odd chances at various rare ones. Our birding began in Ciudad Neily where local birders had a key Savanna Hawk waiting for us in the scope!

We also had wonderful looks at most other specialty species from that site but since we had already seen them earlier in the year, our focus stayed on potential year birds like Red-rumped Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Chat, Masked Duck, and a few others. The woodpecker showed very well on more than one occasion, the chat skulked but called and was briefly seen, and the duck just had too many places to hide.

We also had this Fork-tailed Flycatcher perch right next to the car- my kind of bird!

Over in and near Rincon de Osa, we did well with adding some of the common birds as well as getting distant looks at less common species like Tiny Hawk (!), Turquoise Cotinga (many thanks to Ross Gallardy for spotting a distant male and being generous with his scope), and Yellow-billed Cotinga. The expected Marbled Wood-Quails didn’t call nor did Baird’s Trogon or some other species but by December 28th, I got my 700th bird (which may have been one of the cotingas) and the next day, I added a few more.

The drive back was a long one but at least it gave us a chance to have lunch at PizzaTime in Uvita. Serious NYC style bagels and excellent pizza (and I kid you not, I appreciate good pizza so much, I usually make my own), it’s probably a good I don’t live closer to this tasty spot!

One more year down, another one starts tomorrow. I’ll keep a year list but I won’t try for 700. I’m not sure where my Costa Rica birding will take me but I hope you visit, I hope to see you here in this place of quetzals, mountain-gems, and more.

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Costa Rica Birding at Cinchona and Route 126: 3 Strategies

Birding as a kid in the 70s and 80s was about using cheap but precious binoculars to look at birds in the backyard, in nearby fields, and at state parks. It was about checking out and studying bird books in the public library and back at home, trying to see the differences among sparrows streaked with differents shades of brown, gazing at photos of Prairie Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and other birds (in books), and wondering how I could see them.

It was also about seeing how I could reach places outside of my backyard and joining local trips with an older birding crowd. I went on day trips with the Buffalo Ornithological Society and the Ranbow County Birders to local reserves to look for warblers in May, shorebirds in August, and migrating hawks in early spring. Living in Niagara, we had a fantastic gull trip and were fortunate to have Canadian friends that treated us to 9, even 10 owl species in a day in cold, snowy places. There were different levels of interest but the way we went birding was pretty much the same.

A trip usually started with a meeting time and place that tended to be a McDonald’s parking lot. That way, folks could use the restroom, get a coffee, and maybe a quick breakfast. Before GPS and associated modern digital wayfaring, the big golden arches came in handy as an easy and obvious point of reference. From our meeting spot, the trip leader would convoy us to our morning birding stops and we would watch birds, talk about how to identify them, and maybe look at some through scopes. We would check out field marks in field guides, maybe a Perterson or a Golden Guide. After the Nat. Geo. became available, that fantastic storehouse of updated birding knowledge took center stage. It was a huge help with identification, especially with gulls and shorebirds. We would bring our own lunches and at some later point, say our goodbyes and head back home.

This was how most birding trips were. It was birding without digital cameras, apps, nor any access to broader, collated information about sightings and advanced identification. In other words, birdwatching was just that; watching birds, and there was a big emphasis on field identification. There had to be. The birding community was still figuring out how to identify all sort of things and didn’t have any immediate picture taking devices to check the birds we had seen. Sometimes, people would bring print-outs of articles on identification. When Kenn Kaufman’s book on advanced bird identification was published, that fantastic resource also found a place in the car. Birding was often about getting good looks as fast as you could, knowing what to look for, taking notes and maybe making field sketches.

Since those pre Internet days, birding has evolved and expanded into a many-faceted hobby. The birding spectrum includes everything from watching birds to simply watch them and not worry much about their names, solely taking pictures of birds, and using every technolgical resource on hand to race and see as many species as possible. People also watch birds for other reasons but no matter how you go with the birding flow, in Costa Rica, everyone is welcome at the birding table.

Birds like the stunning Crimson-collared Tanager are waiting for you.

Costa Rica has enough birds and birding sites to please every aspect of the hobby. One of several choice areas to visit for any degree of birding or bird enjoyment or bird photography is Cinchona and Route 126. Situated around an hour or less from San Jose, this route provides access to several habitats, each of which have their fair share of birds. Cinchona is the name of a small settlement on that road where a small restaurant with a wealth of birds is located. It’s called the “Cafe Colibri” or “Mirador San Fernando“.

More than a dozen hummingbird species, tanagers, Black Guan, quetzal, Flame-throated Warbler and other highland endemics, Cinchona and Ruta 126 has enough birds and birding sites to please all aspects of birding. These are three strategies for a day of birding in this area, each tailored to a distinct manner of birding:

Focusing on Birds in Costa Rica and Not Much Else

I admit, this is the birding I have usually done, the birding I prefer to do because it pushes me to concentrate on my surroundings, to listen and look closer and become enveloped by natural surroundings. This type of full scale birding makes for some nature connection at its finest. If you bird like this on Ruta 126 and Cinchona, there are a couple of ways to start your long yet exciting day.

If you can’t sleep, at some pre-dawn hour, drive up the road towards Poas Volcano as far as you can go. Listen and look for Bare-shanked Screech-Owl and Dusky Nightjar. Keep an ear out for the less common tooting whistles of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and be aware that Unspotted Saw-whet might also occur up there (it has yet to be documented from Poas but you never know..).

Roosting Bare-shanked Screech-owls near Poas. This species is a common bird of highland habitats in Costa Rica.

From dawn to 9, get in roadside high elevation birding in that same area before making your way to Varablanca. Keep an eye out for Black Guan, quetzals, silky-flycatchers, and just about everything else. Make sure to stop at the Volcan Restaurant and enjoy a coffee and a snack while watching the hummingbird feeders. Still need Scintillant Hummingbird? Maybe Magenta-throated Woodstar? Check out the Porterweed bushes in the parking lot for the Corso farm.

When you reach Varablanca, make the turn towards Sarapiqui, drive downhill for a little bit and turn right on the San Rafael Road. Bird forest patches there and watch for Dark Pewee, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and various other cloud forest species.

At some point, head back to Ruta 126 and keep driving downhill. You could make stops at the Peace Waterfall to look for American Dipper and and other species, and at one or more overlooks to watch for Ornate Hawk-Eagle and other soaring raptors.

Ornate Hawk Eagle is uncommon but regular in this area.

Arrive at Cinchona just before noon. If you visit on a weekend, the cafe could be crowded. From January to March, it might also be crowded with birders. Find a table, order some food and enjoy the avian show.

While keeping an eye out for both barbets, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and White-bellied Mountain-gem, don’t forget to check the undergrowth and nearby vegetation for surprise birds like a quail-dove or two, Middle American Leaftosser, Black-faced Solitaire, and other species. Make sure to support this important, birder friendly place with a donation.

Post Cafe Colibri, watch for perched Bat Falcon and soaring raptors as you continue driving downhill. For the rest of the afternoon, you can’t go wrong with birding Virgen del Socorro (four wheel drive), Mi Cafecito, and lower foothill birding on the San Miguel-Socorro Road. Checking streams could yield Faciated Tiger-Heron and other nice birdies.

Finish off the day by relaxing at Albergue del Socorro or further on in the Sarapiqui lowlands with a cold beer, or dinner, or counting the 100 plus species you have seen.

Bird Photography in Costa Rica

You still want an early start but unless you want to take a stab at capturing images of night birds, pre-dawn birding won’t be necessary. You might even want to stop for breakfast at Freddo Fresas. That way, you can also set up in their gardens just across the road.

birding Costa Rica

Although you can do bird photography on the road up to Poas, if you can, I suggest saving high elevation photography for places like Batsu or other spots in the Dota Valley. Whether you stop at Freddo Fresas or not, you may want to check out the hummingbird bushes in the parking area of the Corso farm and ice creamery. Further on, make your way down Ruta 126 towards Sarapiqui and on to Cinchona and spend a good few hours there. Make sure to buy lunch and also give them a donation of at least $10 per person. They may also charge a small photography fee. Whatever you do, please do what you can to support this important, fantastic, locally owned place. They have suffered tragedies, worked very hard to rebuild after being destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, and have supported birding and bird photography for many years.

Post Cinchona, keep an eye out for perched and soaring raptors on the drive downhill. The next best stop for photography would probably be Mi Cafecito. Although photo options vary, the area of the canyon overlook can have toucans, guans, tanagers, and other species at fruiting trees. Be careful on that cement trail, it can be very slippery!

After Mi Cafecito, head to your hotel in the Sarapiqui lowlands. To maximize photo opps, you may also want to skip Mi Cafecito altogether and visit Dave and Daves, or just shoot at your hotel.

Dave and Daves

Easy-Going Birding in Costa Rica

If you just feel like seeing whatever you can see, you should still get up early but you won’t need to rush out the door. If you are staying at a place like Villa San Ignacio, enjoy some nice easy birding in their gardens before and during a tasty breakfast. After that, drive up towards Poas and stop at Freddo Fresas to visit their gardens and perhaps buy some strawberry bread for an afternoon snack.

After checking out the gardens, continue on towards Varablanca and start driving downhill towards Sarapiqui on Ruta 126. Stop at one or two overlooks (with small parking areas), scan for flying raptors, and enjoy the scenery. Further on, if you feel like seeing various rescued wildlife in a somewhat zoo-like setting in beautiful surroundings and nice trails, visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (there is an entrance fee). If not, continue on, make an optional stop at the Peace Waterfall and then visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.

The Cafe Colibri is a fantastic, reliable place for getting good shots of Silver-throated Tanager.

Pick a table, order some food and drinks, and enjoy the birds. Take your time and keep watching, see how many species you can find! You might also want to browse their souvenirs and pick out some quality organic chocolate before easing on down the road. Please give a donation to help support this special place.

Further downhill, if you feel like walking a short trail in foothill rainforest, visit Mi Cafecito and walk to the overlook (be careful of slippery trail conditions). This place is also an excellent spot to take a coffee tour. After Mi Cafecito, continue on or head back to your hotel.

No matter how you watch birds, in Costa Rica, there’s a heck of a lot to see. For example, on the route mentioned above, over the years, I have seen more than 330 species. You won’t see all of them there in one day, but you can expect to see a lot and if you visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona, the norm has been close, prolonged views of fantastic tropical bird species.

To learn more about birding routes in Costa Rica, sites, and how to find and identify more birds, prepare for your trip with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here!

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Costa Rica Birding News December, 2021

December birding in Costa Rica is a blend of sun, wind, rain, and hundreds of bird species. A host of migrants add flavor to a speciose sampling of resident birds. The birding is fun, the birding is exciting, and its snowless. It will get cool in the highlands , especially when looking for Unspotted Saw-whet Owls, but you won’t see any of that frozen white stuff in a Costa Rica Christmas.

Instead, you can see tanagers, catch up with the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Baltimore Orioles that left the summer gardens up north.

Go birding and you can and will see a lot. Here’s some of what’s been happening in Costa Rica on the birding front, some of our December birding news:

Greater White-fronted Goose

This small group of adventurous waterfowl are still frequenting a rice field in Guanacaste. Many a local birder has enjoyed this early, unexpected Christmas gift. I hope they stick around much longer, most of all, long enough for us to see them too!

Lark Sparrow

This is what happens when one rare bird attracts a bunch of birders. More eyes in the field help find additional rare birds. This time, it was a Lark Sparrow seen right on the main road to Palo Verde National Park! There are very few records of this handsome little bunting-like species for Costa Rica and this seems to be the first twitchable individual. Once again, I hope it stays for a while, long enough for us to see it.

Manx Shearwater in the Pacific

I wasn’t expecting this one! In restrospect, I probably should have because there are several records from the Pacific, including from Panama. This choice species was seen during a pelagic trip from Cabuya and was well documented by several visiting and local birders. They also saw three White Terns along with several other more expected pelagic species. The pelagic birding trips in Costa Rica are kicking it! Who will document our first Bulwer’s Petrel? Our first Juan Fernandez Petrel or other deep sea Pterodroma? Those possibilities are why I included them on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Several local birders are on a pelagic trip out today, what will they find?

A Day Total of 171 Species in Cano Negro, 176 in Sarapiqui

I’m not so sure if this qualifies as a newsworthy item but it’s still good to be reminded of how incredibly birdy Costa Rica can be. During the Cano Negro Bird Count on December 4th, during 12 hours of birding, our small team identified 171 species while birding from boat and just a little bit on foot. This is without doing any night birding, without running around to try for more birds, getting some rain, and without visiting a key lagoon that would have given us a few more species.

Yeah, I would say that’s pretty birdy! It not only shows how fun the birding can be in Costa Rica, but also how exciting the Cano Negro area is. You just keep seeing more and more birds, including highlights such as Snowy Cotinga, Sungrebe (we had 4 or 5), Yellow-tailed Oriole, a few good migrant warbler, Nicaraguan Grackles, and the list goes on…

snowy-cotinga
A Snowy Cotinga from another day at Cano Negro.

Not to be outdone, while birding in Sarapiqui a couple days later, we had 176 species! It was a full 12 hour day but once again, we didn’t do any serious running around to chase birds, had a good stop for lunch, and still missed some expected species.

The Costa Rica Birding Extravaganza

During the first week of December, several international birders were guided by Diego Quesada of Birding Experiences on a promotional trip that touched on birding in various spots. Highlights were many and included Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, Yellow-breasted Crake, Jabiru, Snowcap, and 400 plus other species. Us local birders are hoping that they will spread the news about the exciting and easy birding in Costa Rica.

Classic and New Sites Open for Business

Just a reminder that classic sites like Cinchona, national parks, Rancho Naturalista, Laguna del Lagarto, and other places are open and waiting for birders, and new sites like Nectar and Pollen are doing the same. The new sites are also a personal reminder that I need to update How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. There’s nothing like getting close looks at beautiful tropical birds!

Health Protocols in Place and Followed

Also, just another reminder that in Costa Rica, health protocols of hand washing and mask wearing are widely followed and enforced (as in if you don’t wear a mask when entering a mall or other similar place, they won’t let you in). Vaccination is also pretty good with more than 63% of the population having had two doses and more than 70% with at least one dose. You can check out the shot progress here

If you are headd to Costa Rica soon, remember to study for your trip, bring an extra data card, and get ready for some fantastic birding. I hope to see you here!

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A Cold Front Brings a New Bird to Costa Rica

Winter in Costa Rica doesn’t arrive with snow squalls, white winged gulls and early nights. Located in tropical latitudes, I’m not even sure if I can call it winter. Ticos don’t. To them, it’s “summer” because, for much of the country, December marks the beginning of a pleasant, sunny dry season. The “winter” is from April on through November; when we get all of that rain.

Yorkin-rainforest-2
The forests need all of that rain.

To be honest, we still get plenty during other months of the year, especially on the Caribbean slope. It’s why heavy rains are a frequent accompaniment to Christmas Counts at Arenal and La Selva, why a small umbrella is essential gear for a birding trip to Costa Rica no matter when you travel. I won’t knock the rain though, it’s a main reason why we also have such an abundance of biodiversity and birds.

Speaking of all things avian and getting back to winter, since these are the winter months of the northern hemisphere, Costa Rica does see some cooler weather in December and January. It’s mostly in the mountains, it happens with cold fronts and it can also bring birds. No winter finches this far south but we do get other species, the ones us local birders we hope to see are ducks, sparrows, and waxwings, maybe a Yellow-rumped Warbler, maybe something super rare.

Based on some recent sightings, if the trend continues, it looks like this winter could end up being one of the best seasons for rare birds we have ever had. Well, at least for local birders. If you will be taking a birding tour to Costa Rica or visiting to bird Costa Rica on your own, our “rare birds” probably won’t float your boat but no worries, the resident species will be waiting for you!

Hepefully, you will get a chance to check out the Easter colors of a White-bellied Mountain-gem.

We like those fancy resident birds too but the species we run to see, that we twitch, are analogous to species local birders twitch in other places. They are birds that visit Costa Rica once in a blue moon or are even new for the country list. One such species is the latest star of the local birding show. It’s a goose and I was not expecting it! Even though I included more than 60 potential species for Costa Rica on the latest version of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, the Greater White-fronted Goose was not one of them.

Yep, you read that right. A Greater White-fronted Goose. In Costa Rica. A bird that brings me back to cold March mornings in western New York when we would scan the large flocks of Canada Geese for one or two White-fronteds. A bird of other places than Costa Rica.

Since there is at least one record for Belize, maybe I should have had the Arctic migrant in mind as a potential addition for the Costa Rica bird list. I thought other new additions would happen first but the Greater White-fronted Goose beat them to it. It’s not officially accepted for the Costa Rica bird list yet but the five birds found at the Las Trancas rice fields on November 29th are sure acting like wild ones. Five together whose appearance may have coincided with the arrival of a northern cold front, and with no signs of anyone keeping them in these here parts, I think there’s a very good chance these are the real, non-domestic deal.

Fortunately, several local birders have already seen them. Unfortunately, we have not and since work has begun in the fields where they are being seen, it doesn’t seem likely they will stick around until we get up that way. If they do leave that spot, hopefully, they won’t go too far and we can also witness a seriously out of place species for Costa Rica.

The other main vagrant will be even less exciting for birders from the north but around here, this species is one heck of a rarity. Costa Rica’s first twitchable Chipping Sparrow is hanging out at an organic farm in the Talamancas. Several local birders can now claim it for their country lists and with luck, it will stay long enough for many others to see it too.

I’m not sure if I’m going to chase that one but then again, it never hurts go birding is in the mountains of Costa Rica. Beautiful scenery, wonderful birding, and fantastic coffee. Life can be good!

Another reason to always go birding, to always pay close attention to every bird is because other super rare species are waiting to be found, perhaps more so this year. They are out there, some vagrant sparrow could easily be skulking in some fallow, unbirded field. Today, birders in Panama added Red-breasted Merganser to the country list! Since two rare for Costa Rica Herring Gulls were also seen today in Tortuguero, I bet the recent cold front has brought some other lost or adventurous birds to this birdy nation.

Since we have more local birders in Costa Rica now than ever before, let’s hope that more of the rare ones turn up and stay long enough for local birders to find and see them. I wonder what else is out there waiting to be found?

Many thanks goes to Ruzby Guzamn Linares for discovering the mega goose and sharing the information.

Many thanks goes to Adrian Alvarado Rivera for the Chipping Sparrow.